Quality Versus Quantity in Workouts

Until a few years ago, it seemed that workouts were all about quantity. A better workout would involve more reps.

Recently, I have started reading and hearing about how quality is perhaps even more important. Instead of doing, for example, as many push ups as possible I should do just as few as one. One very long, and excruciating, push up.

I was surprised by this and a little bit amused by how this seems to support the Handmade Movement view that it is far better to have one quality handmade product than many cheap, low-quality similar items.

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New Leather Briefcase Buying Guide

Today I finished working on my Briefcase Buying Guide. I tried to think about all the different aspects that can affect a decision to buy a briefcase and I feel that I have only scratched the surface. I also tried to always suggest to keep the user in mind.

As I was writing it I had to do a little research within our records. It was interesting to find out that the most popular colors are dark leather and espresso and to see that black briefcases practically sold only in large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Boston, etc. Yet, our samples are not statistically significant and I had to qualify that tidbit as anecdotal. I feel that what would be helpful would be a complete discussion of leather types. But that is such a broad subject that I am going to have to work on it for quite some time.

If you have any comments, please let me know. I am going to improve the guide as new ideas come up.

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Excellent Customer Service – Say What?

The other day a friend of mine asked me for two examples of EXCELLENT customer service experiences that I had, for a project of his. Surely, among the hundreds of phone calls to and e-mail exchanges with customer service reps/sales agents/technical support personnel over the years, I could think of two encounters that would qualify as excellent. So I sat … and thought … and thought some more … and much to my dismay, I couldn’t. Not even ONE. But how could that be?

I was so distraught over this that I decided to analyze it a bit deeper. The answer could lie with any combination of the following:

  1. I am just an obnoxiously snobby person and nothing is ever good enough for me
  2. The quality of Customer Service has been steadily declining
  3. Customer expectations have been steadily rising
  4. I receive excellent service all the time but suffer from selective memory loss

Based on the fact that my friends and family characterize me as being rather patient and even-keeled, and judging on the amount of complaints I hear from others about the service they have received, I dare to say that number 1 is not the main reason as to why I was unable to come up with any excellent customer service experiences. Number 4 above would render this blog post moot, so let’s just assume that my memory serves me well enough for now. That leaves us with 2 and 3.

So, true or false: the quality of Customer Service has been steadily declining.

I don’t think anyone would deny that this is true. With globalization and the development of technologies such as IVR (Interactive Voice Response), you’d be lucky to get a live person to listen to you, much less one that is a native speaker of your language. Note I said a live person to “listen” to you, not to “help” you, because in most cases they are merely a live version of the IVR system – worse, perhaps, as they take longer pauses to process your response, and you can’t exactly curse out the poor chap on the phone for not understanding you.

This level of Customer Service is almost expected of large companies, but what about smaller companies? Small businesses have the perfect opportunity to shine in the Customer Service department, and yet in my personal experience, none have truly seized this opportunity. A case in point: I recently ordered some espresso accessories from an online merchant. Unfortunately, they shipped me the wrong items – OK, it happens, but they are a small company, surely it will be a simple thing to get this sorted out, right? Sadly, the answer was no. 6 days, 2 phone calls, 1 unfulfilled promise to call back, and 0 – that’s right, ZERO apologies later, I still do not have any assurances that they will correct the problem caused by their error. I am sure there are plenty of small companies out there that provide great customer service, but I have not had the privilege of doing business with them in recent years. So yes, Customer Service is going down the tubes, to put it nicely.

But what about the customers? Do we as consumers have unrealistic expectations?

It could be argued that with companies nowadays offering more, like free shipping both ways (Zappos.com) and returns accepted anytime (Nordstroms), consumers have become accustomed to expecting a lot more from their retailers. So is that the problem? If a company does not offer the moon and the stars, are they not considered providers of good customer service? To answer this question, I reflected on my first experience with Zappos.com, the online shoe and apparel retailer who is known for their Customer Service.

Back in 2007, I was in need of a pair of shoes. I found a pair I liked on Zappos.com, and decided to test out their 24-hour support line, low-price guarantee, and free overnight shipping. To my delight, I got all three. I even got an unexpected, if not cheesy, thank-you card from the girl who helped me on the phone. I admit, I was rather impressed (though, I could have done without the card). However, shortly thereafter , Zappos ended their price protection and free overnight shipping policies. Knowing deep down that these policies were unsustainable, I was still disappointed in the realization that what I experienced was merely a great get the word-out customer service policy. I did not include this encounter in my example of excellent Customer Service because I recognized that having impressive Customer Service policies does not necessarily equate to excellent Customer Service.

So yes, the state of Customer Service in this country is declining. And yes, we all have gotten used to some companies offering a lot of freebies, but I think to many, the issue is more than what costs are built in where for the sake of calling something “free”. It’s knowing that you are in capable hands, seeing someone going out the way to help you, the feeling of connectedness – something that is nearly impossible to experience these days in the Customer Service realm.

At least now I feel better knowing why I could not come up with one example of when I experienced excellent Customer Service. It’s not just me.

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New Life for your Old Wallet

I think about this a lot. A changing lifestyle results in changing wallet needs.

When I became a father, I also went from having to carry four cards (ID, credit card, atm/debit card, and business credit card) to… a lot of cards. But those cards are non essential and get carried around just in case you make an emergency visit at Toys’R’Us and you would like to get that 10% discount.

Then my wife got a CARTA credit card case and I got a bit jealous. Even though snake embossed lilac leather is not my cup of tea in terms of leather styles, whenever she used it I would be wishing I had something like it.

So last month we got the MAZZETTA in stock and I was compelled to do some product testing on behalf of our customers. Here is what I think so far:

  1. I like it: the product looks good, feels good, and it fits in the COLOMBO messenger bag pocket.
  2. My wallet is a lot slimmer, which feels cool.
  3. 12 slots fill up fast. I think that the CARTA has more slots. 12 is good enough for me.
  4. I remembered to carry it! The one time I needed it during the last month I did not forget to carry my COLOMBO.
  5. It’s easy enough to use. It’s not as fast as getting a card out of your wallet, but it doesn’t matter that one time in a great while that you use it.

In conclusion, credit card cases are quite useful and can make a nice companion to your wallet. The drawback would be if you forget to carry it when you need it. I am waiting for that to happen to me.

MAZZETTA Credit Card Sleeve

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Reflections on what makes a good gift

In my previous post I talked about how well my friends liked the Aldo leather belt I had gifted to them. They all asked me for an additional one of a different color, exactly what I wished for me.

I suspect that we had a few things in common. Not knowing what their belt collections look like, I can only suspect that most of those belts, like mine, lacked at least one of the following:

  • quality leather
  • inspired design
  • attention to details

I am dissatisfied with my black belt, and will make sure to replace it as soon as possible, but my other belts are OK. Yet, now that I have a belt that is superior to the rest of them, it has become my favorite belt and the one that I reach for every day, except when I need to wear a black belt. The same thing must be going on with my family and friends, and this leads me to this conclusion.

A good gift is a gift that is appreciated. Sometimes such a gift can be something for which we don’t feel a need until we experience it.

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A Dionigi Belt is a Great Gift for Him

Last year we added Vincenzo’s Italian leather belts to our line up. I named my favorite model after my maternal grandfather, Aldo, and made sure to get one in espresso to use both with my jeans and with my brown slacks.

I also gave it as a gift to one of my friends and to two relatives.

It did not take long for me to wish to have a black one as well. Every time I wear my non-Italian-leather, non-handmade black belt it feels really cheap and it has gotten to a point that it is rubbing off on my pants. I will for sure get a black Dionigi belt by Vincenzo on the next gift opportunity. Maybe for Father’s Day.

What really struck me was how every one of the three people to whom I gifted the Aldo belt, complimented me on its quality and asked for another one of a different color. I had never experienced such enthusiastic reception for any of my gifts. More on this in my next post.

The Aldo Italian leather belt. So far, 100% of my gift recipients liked it and asked for more.

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Windows Disk Virus

Of course it strikes at the worst possible time… Just as I am contemplating making a glorious cappuccino after some great Linguine al Castello (a seafood pasta dish really worth a try). Oh, wait! And weren’t my last words: “It’s pretty early, I look forward to a productive afternoon.”?

They were. And I will never utter those words again.

Windows Disk got installed on one of our computers. First thing we did was unplug the computer from the network, then we looked up information on how to remove it. After following all the steps and performing all the scans, it appears that the program was eradicated–2.5 hours later.

That’s what I call a productive afternoon!

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What Makes a Good Ramen?

Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup that is a staple of the Japanese diet. Although many non-Japanese will think of the 29¢ (or however much they cost these days) packet of instant bachelor food, true Ramen is an artform, to say the least.

I used to love Ramen because they taste good,without knowing why or caring enough to find out. Then one day, I caught a Japanese documentary on TV that followed one man’s fight to revive his struggling Ramen shop. I never saw a bowl of Ramen the same way again.

This poor man, let’s call him Mr. R, was on the brink of losing his Ramen shop. But  his failure was completely self-induced; he had no respect for his own profession. Walking into his shop one would be greeted by a dark, dingy space, laundry hanging in plain sight, and an almost creepy, unmotivated middle-aged man reading the paper . The TV show then hired one of the top Ramen chefs in Japan (not to be confused with Top-Ramen chefs) to whip Mr. R into shape and help him turn his failing business around.

Mr. R  had to start over from the basics. What particularly struck me was how he would wake up at 3 in the morning to start preparing the dizzying number of raw ingredients that make up the Ramen broth. Then he would return to the shop a couple of hours later to check on the progress of the broth. Finally, after hours of simmering and readjusting, the broth would be ready to be evaluated by the top chef … only to be told it is not worthy of any customer. He had to keep trying , day after day, until he got everything exactly right.

To his credit, Mr. R made a remarkable turn-around … but only after he changed his attitude towards the art of Ramen-making. He went from a lazy bum who was trying to make ramen to make a living, to someone who is passionate about what he does, and who sacrifices his blood, sweat and tears to achieve the perfect bowl of Ramen. His reward would be a thumbs-up from a satisfied customer … something he probably never experienced until that day.

So if you ask me, a good bowl of Ramen is more than the toppings or even the ingredients … it’s Ramen that embodies the spirit of its maker.

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Why I Love Handmade Italian Leather Bags (Part 3)

Last week I claimed that Italian leather is world class but that it was not enough to cause me to love a bag. For that to happen, the artisan has to be passionate about working with the best leather on Earth.

If you search for Italian leather briefcases you will come across a multitude of designs by a multitude of suppliers. So what makes a leather briefcase so special that I would consider it worth loving? I set all the bags on my desk and let time do its magic. Eventually, some bags will speak out. If a briefcase doesn’t speak to me it is not a work of art and it is out: it can be handmade and made with the best Italian leather but it has no soul.

After eliminating the uninspiring, I turn to those bags worth owning that make me say: “wow, that is a nice briefcase”. There are many bags like these: my Affari by Vincenzo fits this description. I like how it is designed, I love its leather and the craftsmanship that put it together, and, most importantly, I feel like it is an elegant accessory and a practical way to carry my laptop for business.

Then there are the ultimate briefcases, the ones that make me fall in love. I can immediately think of two: the Documenti briefcase by Bojola and the Santarelli Italian leather briefcase by Marco Campomaggi. The Bojola bag is very classy: so much so that I really want to be seen with it. The Campomaggi briefcase is so good looking and masculine that it embodies how I want to look: it taps into my aspirations so well that I cannot resist it.

Awesome doesn’t happen by accident: it requires the love of a passionate artisan poured into it. I guess that I don’t love handmade Italian leather bags after all. What I love is awesome handmade Italian leather bags.
Italian leather briefcase

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Super Simple and Quick Porcini Pasta

Last night we were in a pinch – it was getting late, and we had to make something for dinner that didn’t require a trip to the grocery store. Thanks to Eliana, we had a bag full of porcini mushrooms, picked and dried by her grandmother in Italy! We wanted to do something a little different from our normal porcini risotto, but most of the porcini pasta recipes we consulted required heavy cream, something we did not have.

So, we improvised. Here is a SUPER simple and quick porcini pasta that can be made with ridiculously few ingredients:

Ingredients (serves 4):

  • a handful of dried porcini mushrooms. This is the minimum. More is better.
  • enough beef bouillon cubes to make about 2 cups of broth
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • 2-3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1Tbsp butter (optional)
  • one box of dry pasta (of course fresh would be great if you have it!)
  1. soak the dried porcini in warm or hot water for 10-15 minutes.
  2. start boiling the water for the pasta at this time.
  3. remove the porcini without discarding the water – wring dry, set aside. Chop up the larger pieces, if desired.
  4. pour the remaining porcini juice through a sieve (I use 2 plies of paper towl) into a microwaveable container.
  5. add enough beef bouillon cubes to this porcini juice to make beef-porcini broth, then microwave until hot.
  6. peel, chop and fry the garlic in 2-3 Tbsp of olive oil on low heat.
  7. add the butter (if desired) and porcini, stir-fry for a coupe of minutes.
  8. add the beef-porcini broth and stir to make sure the bouillon(s) have dissolved. Let simmer on low heat until the pasta is ready (al dente!), then coat the pasta in this broth and serve. There will be no “sauce” left, but the pasta will absorb all the flavor, color and aroma of the porcini mushrooms.

May not exactly be restaurant-quality, but given the time and effort involved, it’s deceptively good. This dish was gobbled up as quickly as it was made. Enjoy!

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